Jane Heldin was looking for three things in a home: a short commute, a nice kitchen, and a chance to finally be happy.
This last was the hardest to explain to her realtor. She didn’t know how to describe the feeling of emptiness that she longed to fill. She told her realtor, a lovely woman named Frances, that she was looking for a place that was “a little bit magical.” Frances nodded knowingly and took Jane to a quiet, tree-lined cul-de-sac near the Millstream. One side of the street was park-like, with no homes visible, and the other was charming early to mid-century duplexes. Frances led Jane to the duplex at the end of the street, off the roundabout.
Frances explained that across the street there was a path to a public swimming hole, but the house view was of a private stretch of the stream, so Jane should expect relative privacy. The common wall, Frances said, was shared with a retired couple who traveled extensively.
The house was a dream. It had real parquet flooring throughout, charming little wood tiles stained a medium brown that shone red in the sun. The kitchen had a breakfast nook with a large window overlooking the stream. There were two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs; the landing at the top of the stairs was spacious and had a built-in linen closet. Besides the eat-in kitchen, there were a front room, a parlor, and a powder room downstairs, as well as a windowless formal dining room that Jane thought would make a very nice library. It even had a fireplace.
She put an offer on the house immediately.
A week later, she met Frances at her favorite coffee shop. It was near her apartment, and she supposed she would miss it once she’d moved. They both got sandwiches, even though it was not a proper mealtime. Jane had one with gouda cheese, arugula, and a sharp but sweet apple of a variety she was unfamiliar with; she thought to herself that she would have to look for them at the farmer’s market next week. Frances ordered a cup of tea, which she drank with lemon, and Jane ordered coffee, which she drank plain. They talked about where they’d gone to college, and their favorite places to go—they both loved to spend an afternoon just wandering a museum; Frances loved the natural history museum while Jane usually went to the modern art gallery, which was full of pieces she didn’t understand.
And then, after they ate, Frances took a folder out of her bag and placed it on the table in front of Jane, and just like that she signed the papers to buy the house. It had been so easy that she couldn’t believe it when Frances handed her the keys. Like magic.
Jane rode her bike straight to the house to see if it was really real. She walked into the empty house and just breathed in the quiet. She walked back to the kitchen and found a vase of alstroemeria on the windowsill above the sink. She loved lilies. Frances must have left them. The vase was a lovely amber crackle glass. She called Frances to say thank you, and told her she could stop by anytime to pick up the vase; Frances said it was hers to keep. It was perfect.
Jane slept in her apartment, aware of every street noise all night. In the morning she unplugged her coffee pot and carefully biked to the house with it, her favorite mug (the one with the bird on it), her coffee grinder, and a bag of her favorite beans, all wrapped in a beach towel and tied to the basket. She made coffee in her new, empty kitchen, and sat on the floor, the beach towel folded like a cushion, to drink it.
Jane went shopping, determined to fill her new home with the perfect items, every one of them just right for her and for the house. She found seating for the parlor and library, the sofa large enough that a grown person could sleep on it if they wanted to. Unsure what to do with the front room, she chose a breakfront and bench, leaving room to add on later. She hired a woman to build bookshelves and one to paint. She bought a bedroom set for her room and a smaller one for the guest room, with a luggage stand in case someone came to stay for a while; pots and pans and canning goods; dishes with tiny roses on them and amber glasses that perfectly matched the vase Frances had left; pillows and bedding and curtains and rugs; she visited galleries and found art for her walls. Lastly, finally, after searching all over town for just the right one, she found a white and red enamel table with red vinyl chairs for the breakfast nook; after careful consideration, she also bought a turquoise typewriter with a carrying case to match. She ordered a fresh ribbon and correction tape for it. She’d always wanted to write again; she’d once won a prize in school.
On a whim, Jane picked up a deck of cards in the antiques barn where she found the table and chairs and the typewriter. They appeared to be hand-painted, and included several face cards she’d never seen before; she assumed it was some sort of tarot deck. She tucked it into her purse and asked for everything else to be delivered the following week.
She slept every night in her apartment, which she no longer thought of as hers, and worked every day at her job. Every morning she woke early and biked to the house for her coffee before work. Some evenings when five o’clock rolled around, she could not stand to spend hours at the apartment and instead biked to the new house and sat on the kitchen floor until it was nearly dark, biking back to the apartment as fast as she could.
The majority of Jane’s furniture arrived at the house the same afternoon that she got the phone call about layoffs. She had taken the day off to receive the furniture, and was sitting on the kitchen floor when she took the call. She stood up and wandered through the no longer empty rooms, surveying her magical new house that she could no longer afford, feeling utterly defeated for a moment. Then she squared her jaw and bicycled to the local nursery, where she purchased everything she’d need for a garden. She paid for it and arranged to have it delivered. She biked home again and spent hours in her new kitchen, baking and making jams and pickles and filling her pantry and a full-size freezer with food to last months.
Exhausted, Jane sat at her kitchen table. Rummaging through her purse for a candy bar or a cigarette or anything she wouldn’t have to cook, she found the deck of cards and took it out to examine it more closely. She had never read the tarot, but she found herself laying three cards on the table and staring at them.
The first one was a small, indistinct figure with piercing eyes. Jane’s only thought when looking at it was monster.
The second was a wild-haired woman with pale, almost green-hued skin; she was not smiling. Witch.
The third, who was smiling, could only be described as the devil.
Jane returned the monster and the devil to the deck and propped the witch up against the window pane. It was twilight outside, the time Jane remembered her father calling the gloaming.
The woman seemed to appear out of nowhere, emerging from the little wood between house and stream, suddenly looming up behind the card. Witch. Jane was instantly ashamed of herself for thinking it, but there was no denying that the woman looked eerily like the painting. Surely the green skin was a trick of the light, but the wild hair and Stevie Nicks ensemble were uncanny. Jane stared impolitely until the woman rapped on the window.
Jane stood up and opened the back door. The woman peered around the doorway as though deciding whether or not to come in. Jane was not sure, but she thought the woman sniffed once or twice. Evidently she decided yes, she would come in, and she stepped inside abruptly, pushing roughly past Jane. She opened cupboards and rifled through the pantry, leaving doors open and spilling a jar of pencils on the counter. She plunked two mugs on the counter and pried open a tin of tea leaves Jane had never seen before, grabbing a fistful and dividing it carelessly between the cups. She picked up Jane’s kettle from the stovetop and set it back down hard on the stove. It whistled instantly. Jane was sure the kettle had been empty, but the woman—was this a woman?—poured out steaming hot water into the mugs. She carried them to the table, swirling the water in the cups. She gently blew on one before setting it down and gesturing toward the chair, grunting at Jane to sit.
The witch—Jane knew she shouldn’t think of the woman as a witch—gestured and grunted drink. Jane wasn’t sure if the word actually came out of her mouth, or if she just felt it. She was sure the tea was boiling hot, but she picked up the mug and sipped gingerly. It was the perfect temperature.
Jane smiled politely. “My name is Jane. And you are…?”
The witch swirled her tea and said, “You can call me Timber.”
Jane wasn’t sure where to go from there. Timber spoke again, saving her the trouble.
“What are you looking for, Jane?”
“I want to be…I want to be happy?”
“Is that a question? Or is that what you want?”
“I want to be happy.”
Timber swirled her tea and closed her eyes, perhaps thinking it over. Jane waited, sipping her tea until she found herself with an empty cup, with only damp tea leaves at the bottom. She set it down and Timber grabbed it, peering into it with one bulging eye.
“Oh, you mean you want to be happy,” Timber said, accusingly, as though that were not what Jane had just said. “I will help you.”
“Thank you,” Jane started, “but that’s not necess—”
“I didn’t say I could,” Timber interrupted. “Nor did I say I might. I said I will.”
Jane decided that it was really too late to do anything about Timber, so she might as well go along with it. At least she hadn’t chosen the devil’s card. Then she might be having tea—or worse—with the actual devil.
Timber sent her to bed and Jane obeyed.
The next morning, Jane woke and found that it was already late morning. It was so quiet. She got up and went to the bathroom, and when she came back into her bedroom, Timber was there with a tray full of coffee and scones. Jane had not made scones. She supposed Timber had baked them, or perhaps magicked them. Jane sat at the small table by her window—the table had not been there when she went to bed—and drank her coffee. She took a bite of scone. It was delicious and tasted only very slightly of magic.
After breakfast, Jane took a long, hot bath. Eventually she made her way downstairs and found the kitchen in a state. It seemed that Timber had baked the scones. The counters were covered in detritus and dirty dishes. Jane went to start washing up and Timber appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and stopped her, grunting and gesturing at the kitchen table. Jane looked and her typewriter was set up, a stack of paper beside it and another cup of coffee as well.
Timber moved to the stove and banged her fist on top of it, then moved to the counter and did the same. The mess vanished. Jane was impressed and a little afraid.
Timber set a radio on the windowsill and turned it on. Jane was quite sure she did not own a radio, nor was she certain what sort of music was coming out of it now.
Jane put a piece of paper into her typewriter and wound the wheel.
She began typing.
THE TIMBER WITCH
Oh, Jane thought. This was not the story she had intended to write. She glanced at Timber, thinking of throwing away this page and trying again; Timber narrowed her eyes and shook her head.
Jane kept typing.
She worked until the stack of paper was gone. It lasted to exactly the end of a scene. Somehow her coffee cup never emptied; she was not at all sure whether Timber had magicked it to stay full or quietly refilled it the old-fashioned way.
She wound the wheel, took out the last page, and tidied the stack. Then she stood and stretched. She was hungry, and something smelled marvelous. She went looking for Timber and found her on the front porch with a bowl of soup, a cup of tea, and a hunk of bread. The witch glanced up at her and snarled, “Get your own.” Jane walked back inside and served herself from the stovetop, where everything was waiting, the soup in a large pot, the bread on a wooden board. She poured a glass of water to drink and took it all to the porch on a tray.
Timber finished eating first and vanished before Jane could try to engage her in conversation. She wanted to ask what she was doing there, why she had come. What her intentions were.
When Jane finished eating and went inside, she found that curtains and art had been hung, rugs laid, and books placed on shelves. She found Timber out back building a bonfire with all of the boxes and packing materials. Jane was sure she saw her throw a handful of herbs or dirt or some such thing into the fire, and she knew it did not smell like a regular fire. It was not a bad smell, but a sweet one.
She went inside and back to work. There was a new stack of paper next to the typewriter, a fresh bouquet of flowers in Frances’ vase, and a cup of peppermint tea with a little plate of white crumbly cookies that tasted like almonds. Jane started to type again, the words coursing through her and appearing on the paper almost without her knowing what she was typing until she’d typed it.
This went on for several weeks, until one day Jane typed
She knew that she wasn’t truly done, but it was the first story she’d finished even a rough draft of since…well, college, she supposed. Writing used to make her feel tired, but now she only felt exhilarated. Perhaps this was what it was like to be a man writing a novel, with your wife or your mother doing everything else for you.
Ashamed, Jane went to draw her own bath, but Timber had already fixed it for her. It was hot and bubbly and smelled good, and Jane was sure the window over the bathtub was larger than it had been when she bought the house. After her bath, she put on her robe and went downstairs to make dinner. She smelled chicken roasting in the oven and saw that the table was set for two, her writing accoutrement nowhere to be seen. There were greens in the sink and her vase was on the windowsill, empty. Timber came in through the back door, clutching what looked like a piece of wood.
“Are you eating with me tonight?” Jane asked.
“No. Get dressed. Your lady friend is coming over.” Timber set down the item she’d been carrying, and it wasn’t a piece of wood at all, but a bottle of wine.
“My lady friend?”
Timber ignored her and moved to the sink, where she started washing potatoes.
Jane went upstairs and got dressed. As she came down the stairs, the doorbell rang. She opened the door and found Frances there, with a bouquet of alstroemeria in her hands.
“Your grandmother called me. I hope it’s all right—?”
Jane stepped back and held the door open.
“Of course it’s all right! How are you?”
They exchanged pleasantries, and Jane took Frances’ jacket. Timber came out of the kitchen and snatched the flowers from Jane. When she led Frances into the kitchen, the flowers were in the vase on the windowsill, the food was on the table, and Timber was nowhere to be seen.
“Isn’t your grandmother staying for dinner?”
“She does what she wants,” Jane laughed.
“She tells me you’ve written a novel.”
“Yes, I just finished it this afternoon.”
“Goodness, that’s fast. How did you write so quickly?”
“Magic, I guess.” Frances laughed. “Getting laid off helped.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
They sat quietly eating for a while. Jane remembered the wine and poured them each a glass. It was very good, earthy without being bitter. Jane didn’t know any of the proper words for wine-tasting. After dinner they took the rest of the bottle into the library. Jane was going to build a fire, but one was already burning and the room was cozy and warm. Jane looked around the room. She was sure she’d only bought one wingback reading chair, but two now flanked the fireplace, close enough that their occupants might hold hands, if they wished to.
The next morning, Jane woke up and remembered that Frances had stayed in the guest room after they’d finally finished the nearly bottomless bottle of wine. She crept downstairs to make breakfast for Frances. The coffee was made and there was a basket of muffins with a note.
Jane smiled and silently thanked Timber.
|Annika Barranti Klein lives in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles with her family and a lot of books. She writes stories about ordinary girls in extraordinary circumstances (and sometimes vice versa), some of which have been in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Craft Literary, Milk Candy Review, Mermaids Monthly, and Weird Horror. The full list, along with where else to find her, is at annikaobscura.com.|